Sarah Mariam

Adapting Raag Darbari: A Dramaturg’s Journey



While working on the dramatisation of Raag Darbari, as I struggled to answer, with accuracy and due depth, each time I was asked the questions—What’s a dramaturg? What is her role in the process of creation? Are you translating the play? Are you the playwright of the play?. I increasingly realised how crucial it was to generate renewed interest and discourse around a figure that has existed for several decades now, sporadically accorded focus or left in the zone of ambiguity, oftentimes it’s very requirement and contributive value questioned. This essay, in part, is an effort to dig deeper and unearth these answers; rummaging through the process of rehearsals and endless hours spent with the actors, the director and the designers to be able to locate the possible sites and occasions where the practice of dramaturgy was called to action.

Revisiting, Rethinking, Restaging

The two-month-long process that led to the staging of Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari as a pedagogical exercise with the First Year Acting students at the National School of Drama was one that effected, among others, the paramount question of what is dramaturgy in Indian theatre today. Set in eastern UP of the late 1950s, and emerging from a period when the nation was newly independent, Raag Darbari completed fifty years in 2018, a tremendous literary milestone for Indian writing. Shukla’s political satire brings to the fore the gap that exists—that between the grand Nehruvian vision of a developing India and the miserable, ‘cheekat’ India of the villages which the corrupt machinations of rural politics feed off. The three institutions—cooperative union, gaaon panchayat, and educational body—which are key to rural development are gradually in a shambles at the hands of Vaidyaji, the local leader in the guise of an ayurvedic doctor. It is from his darbar that a dissonant raag arises, which sardonically echoes the failure of all bids to overthrow institutionalised corruption and all possibilities for growth. Confronted with a world that carries striking resemblances to the nation,—one fraught with insurmountable oppression—Shukla describes the Hindi stage calling out with urgency for the performance of this literary dystopia that is a microcosm of the world we inhabit.

Dramaturgy Today

Brecht’s practice and theorisation of the dramaturg as we understand his role today spread to the English-speaking world during the 1960s and 70s, emanating significantly from John Willett’s 1965 translation of Der Messingkauf. It is since then that a professionalisation of this role in the US and Canada has come about, continuing to travel to other parts of the world. In trying to theorise one’s role as dramaturg in a theatrical project, there is an inevitable and repeated referring back to Brecht’s Der Messignkauf (trans.The Messingkauf Dialogues)—with its exhaustive enumeration of the various capacities in which the dramaturg may function, the fluid borders of the niche that the dramaturg occupies/inhabits, the shape-shifting, elastic, often even indeterminate quality that this specific role within a collaborative exercise comes with. Is dramaturgy a craft? Is it research? Is it desk-work, or is it playmaking? Or is it all of these in parts? If yes, then how are the parts calibrated in relation to each other? Despite being called to be recognized as ‘Brecht’s most significant theatrical achievement’ in 1980 by Jan Knopf, there still does not exist sufficient consciousness of the practice, and a dramaturg might often find himself/herself encountered with the question—What is the task of the dramaturg?

Adapting Raag Darbari

‘The Dramaturg puts himself at the Philosopher’s disposal, and promises to apply his knowledge and abilities to the conversion of the theatre into the thaeter (sic) of the Philosopher. He hopes the theatre will get a new lease of life.’ (Brecht 2003)

The foremost step in adapting Raag Darbari was for the dramaturgical exercise to organise itself around the vision of the director. Only then could emerge a narrative structure that would make for the integration of the staging techniques, the sound design, the use of space, of objects and of technology that the director envisioned. Working with this directorial vision meant following the impulse of making that the director breathed into the process, and imbuing one’s own meaning into it. I came to observe the process as one that progressed not in steps, but in layers. Novel-reading (first solitarily, then collectively with actors),  script-development, improvisations, then rehearsals, and eventually finalising the script were processes where layer after layer was peeled off to finally arrive at a well-shaped, concretised play-script.

Working on a text as expansive as Raag Darbari, a preliminary reading of the novel was the first step, followed by contextual research; what other adaptations have happened? What is the literature/scholarship available around our source text? Once this basis had been established, the next phase of work was script development. Enframing the expansive canvas of the novel within the structure of a two-and-a-half-hour play brought in the realisation that the core of the novel, when laid bare, continues to problematise the dream that is the Nation. The process of adaptation identified characters that are deceptive archetypes—manipulative bureaucrats, corrupt middlemen, village elders, inert intellectuals. Chiselling out a play-script from the novel then had to be done bearing in mind the character arcs and character graphs of each of them. The selection of lines and dialogues to keep and to leave out from the play was a selection that had to be done such that it would transmigrate to the play-script, the undulations and trajectories of the source material.

Another concern for the task of dramaturgy was regarding form. Considering that Shukla’s Raag Darbari is essentially essayistic in its literary quality, what did it entail to search for a form in adaptation? How was such a formless-ness to be transmigrated? How was the openness—both in terms of multiple possibilities of unfolding of action, and also of interpretation—that the novel very consciously weaved into itself, to be transported to the space of a stage? Was the requirement a rearranging of episodes? Was it the invention of new characters or scenes? Was it an extensive cutting (running the risk of planishing) of the original text? With a first draft of the play-script, we met the actors’ group and began the simultaneous processes of reading and improvisation. Once a round of improvisations was done on the first draft of the chiselled script, what was collated over the next four weeks of watching improvisations, making notes and discussing with the group became the second, and working-draft of the play. The phase that followed was of rehearsals, where the director set to work building scenes with actors, with focus on the minutest of aspects. The dramaturg was relocated from the confines of the reader’s or the writer’s turret to the site of play-making, but to what end?

..the dramaturg represents an audience within a rehearsal process, able to identify the potential gap between what is intended and what is received, and to give the artist a perspective on what they are creating.’ (Turner, Behrndt, Dramaturgy and Performance )

For me to become a part of the script development process, it was necessary to be present in the rehearsal space and go from being the reader of script to emblematising the viewer. I would enter the rehearsal space to watch what the actors’ group was producing with the director, and to incorporate the devised parts within the script. This sometimes required slight changes to dialogue as they appear in the novel, sometimes a rearranging of a chain of events, at other times the intervention of the figures of the narrators to hand-hold the audiences from one narrative juncture to the other.

Dramaturgical Adaptation

What was it about the creation of Raag Darbari for stage that called for the use of the term Dramaturgical Adaptation? Not a rarity of usage, nor a mindless nomenclature, yet one that is a coming together of two very distinct literary-cultural fields of practice, the term calls attention to the curious case of this methodological convergence. There are compelling similarities to be found between the two practices of adaptation and dramaturgy. Both, as opposed to the allied field of Translation where these terms continue to be watchwords, can to a great extent discredit the words (read concerns) fidelity and betrayal. Both are processes in which the politics of authorship, directorial authority and actor impulse problematise the collaborativeness in the creation of the performance text. Since, when the stage (and not cinema) is considered in adaptation scholarship, there is strikingly infrequent reference to dramaturgy; it is therefore inevitable to bring dramaturgical reflections to adaptational praxis, and identify from which fissures did adaptational methodology seep into that of dramaturgy. One way to do that is to move forward from a common categorisation of dramaturgs as either production dramaturgs or new play dramaturgs. The former works with published plays, to develop the director’s vision for that particular staging, the latter works in tandem with the writer to develop the play-script. There is, however, a third category that falls in the middle of this, that of adaptational dramaturgy. The making of Raag Darbari for stage sits in this category, wherein adapting a novel into a play requires bringing to practice the skills associated with both—ensconcing the directorial vision as well as script development from scratch.

Notorious, Slippery: The Unreliable Narrator

The satire on politics in Shukla’s Raag Darbari lies in the author-narrator’s witty and brooding voice, meandering recklessly (or strategically) into directions unpredictable, segueing page after page from one story-line to the other, one locale to the other, merging fact with fiction, dreams with reality, truth with non-truth. The verbal transmigration of this unreliable voice, I soon realised, became the linchpin of dramatising Raag Darbari. The endeavour to retain the narratorial pulse took place in motley ways—at times in dialogue and action, at others in the entrepreneurial figures of Sitti and Pitti, the female cable-TV operators who perform the function of taking the viewer through the politically charged, deceptively simple and quintessentially intoxicated village-scape of Shivpalganj. Much like the Brechtian dramaturg would have, very often a radical alteration of structure and plot was conducted on the source text, but only to eventually retain the chaos and ambiguity of the original.

While the narrators, being women, accomplished another concern that came with picking up a novel from rural India of the 1950s, the total and abysmal absence of women in the novel, the same concern was addressed in other ways and at other instances in the play. The mysterious figure of the female singer, who comes with the ambiguity of being a prostitute, has no voice in the novel. As she sits in a corner and smiles coyly, two male characters in the novel discuss her. The play lends autonomy and individuality to the singer, who, instead of the middleman speaking on her behalf as an artist, speaks for herself and entrances Rangana with her bold charisma. 

To contemporise Raag Darbari was to render it increasingly incisive and articulate for the stage of today. It involved moving beyond the confines of source-text-fidelity to exploring a few male characters as female ones. Such an experimentation with source material only led to an arrival at the observation that the Machiavellian workings of those in power remain unhindered even when faced with a doubly subjugated figure—powerless and female. It was also interesting to note how gender becomes inconsequential upon the acquisition of power, and women of influence function in the same exploitative manner as male figures of authority.

Escaping, Exiting, Ending

Shukla problematises the very act of conceiving of the revolutionary figure. The narrative is a bildungsroman of Rangana, the urban, educated, female figure who the reader may identify with, who visits the village of Shivpalganj to recover from an illness. What ensues through the course of the narrative is her growing disillusionment with the rural world that she had believed to be a model of peace, health and simplicity. As the narrative moves ahead to its point of culmination, the question looms increasingly larger—Will Rangana act on her indignation and principles? Will the promise of revolution be fulfilled? The novel ends in Rangana’s mounting desire to escape from Shivpalganj, a powerful comment on how education ironically places the educated elite at the greatest distance from issues of national import. At the same time, the moment of her escape being left unresolved in all its ambiguity accorded the adaptation with freedom to politically rework the ending. Raag Darbari, the play, carries the same ambiguity, but moves a gesture closer in the direction of escapism; Rangana has stopped a city-bound truck. Darkness, the play has ended. But not without unpacking a whole set of questions: how do we conceive of violence, why is it perpetrated, who are its perpetrators? To do a dramaturgical adaptation of Raag Darbari is to, out-beyond the technical and methodological concerns, creatively and adventurously toy with the lines between truth and untruth already rendered blurry, to mix fiction with reality; each permutation and combination, a step in a new direction towards meaning-making.


Barnette, Jane. Literary Adaptation for the Stage. New York, Routledge, 2014. Print.

Brecht, Bertolt. The Messingkauf Dialogues. Trans. John Willett. New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Knopf, Jan. Brecht-Handbuch: Theater. Stuttgart, np, 1980. Web.

Shukla, Shrilal. Raag Darbari. New Delhi, Rajkamal Prakashan, 2008. Print.

Turner, Cathy and Synne K. Behrndt. Dramaturgy and Performance. New York, Palgrave, Macmillan, 2008. Print

Sarah Mariam is a PhD research scholar at the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She has done her MPhil on the translated works of Habib Tanvir.

One comment on “Adapting Raag Darbari: Sarah Mariam

  1. Mona S Khan

    Indeed transforming a novel into a performance act play nust be a labour intensive process. To be able to shrinka narrative into a time bound dialogic piece is a remarkable art in itself.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *